Diamonds and drugs, guitars and guns

Around 10 p.m., the lights in the Asheville Civic Center arena darkened, and the somber strains of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”—the theme from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001—filled the air. The music was appropriately momentous, because the long-waited date of July 22, 1975, had arrived. A bona fide superstar was about to rock the then-new arena for three nights in a row.

Asheville resident Nancy Fox was there, after she and a girlfriend, along with 7,500 other people, had shelled out a mere $10 for their tickets. “We were in the orchestra section; we had good seats,” she recalls. “My heart was jumping out of my skin.”

As the dramatic pounding of the timpani drove 2001 to its climax, into the limelight stepped the one, the only, Elvis Aaron Presley.

“When he came out, he was bigger than life in that white jumpsuit,” Fox remembers. An eruption of screams filled the arena as the music segued into a rousing version of another late-Elvis standard, “C.C. Rider.”

That show and the next two—all of which had sold out in a matter of hours back in March—marked the end of one of Elvis’ ‘70s-era whirlwind tours. It was a short but intense venture away from the comforts of Graceland, a two-week Oklahoma City-to-WNC blitz brimming with music and mayhem.

And for all the excitement at the Civic Center—where scalper tickets were going for as much as $50—an equally compelling display of Elvis’ dramatic flair was playing out behind the scenes. “A writer who had the time could dig up a thousand stories about Elvis’ visit here,” noted Asheville Citizen writer Bob Terrell in a July 25 column. Unearthing those stories, which exemplified the excess, eccentricity and sheer heart that came to characterize the performer’s final years, makes it clear that Elvis rocked Asheville in more ways that one.

A bigger version of Elvis

When he played the Asheville shows—30 years ago last week—Elvis was an increasingly hefty 40-year-old, a far cry from the boy-faced, slick-and-slim wonder who hypnotized a generation of teenagers with the forbidden fruit of rock ‘n’ roll. He’d been to Asheville before, but under much different circumstances: In 1955, right before he became famous, he’d opened here for country music faves Hank Snow and Martha Carson.

Twenty years later, when Elvis finally returned, the once indisputable “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” found his fame—and frame—changing shape. As Nancy Fox remembers it, in Asheville there were signs of the star’s now-infamous physical decline, but he was still a full-fledged star. “He was in that progression to where he ended up being, but he had not gotten to that point. He was just bigger—but he was still Elvis Presley, in all of his glory. He was just a bigger version of Elvis.”

The next day, the Asheville Citizen recorded that Elvis was “paunchy but pretty,” and that he sang in a voice “as vigorous and convincing as ever.” During the almost two-hour performance, the singer, his 15-piece band, 11-member orchestra and slew of backup singers gave the Asheville audience a big show, pausing for only one, unexpected seven-minute intermission.

The late gospel great J.D. Sumner, a close Elvis confidant whose band, the Stamps Quartet, had opened for Elvis that night, told the story in his book Elvis: His Love for Gospel Music and J.D. Sumner (Gospel Quartet Music Company, 1991), which he wrote with Bob Terrell. In the middle of the show, Elvis looked at him, winced and asked him to take the microphone and introduce the band. Without further explanation, Elvis left the stage.

“I didn’t know where he was going, or if he would be back,” Sumner recalled. He killed time by introducing the band members and telling a couple jokes. Then, suddenly, Elvis again materialized.

The singer took the mic and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard about the king being on his throne. Well, I’ve been on the throne.”

The show went on, and while the Asheville Citizen‘s reviewer observed that “the rock seemed to have gone out [of] Elvis the Pelvis’ roll,” he did take note of the performer’s “brief Kung-fu dance routine during the closing of ‘Polk Salad Annie.’”

“He sounded as good as he’d ever sounded, to me,” says Fox. A bootleg recording of the next night’s show, obtained by Xpress, verifies just how good Elvis still was. A core of songs from across his career anchored each Asheville engagement, carefully careening between the aching love of Elvis’ heartfelt ballads to the big-band Vegas rock that characterized his later music. (What’s more, on the final night, he solicited and granted a handful of notable song requests from the audience.)

From whichever genre he sang, Elvis’ voice was sonorous, sexy and sweet, and he kept the momentum going between songs with plenty of crowd-charming banter.

And then, of course, there were the jumpsuits—and a few other sparkling surprises.

Heartbreak Hotel

For all the showmanship Elvis displayed on the outside, by the summer of 1975, his inner struggles were indeed threatening to take the rock out of his roll. To a certain degree, the soundtrack of his life was becoming one of broken records: depression, violent mood swings, excessive spending, an unpredictable temper, and perhaps most troubling, an increasing dependence on an array of prescription pills.

Earlier in the tour that ended in Asheville, his personal turmoil had spilled onto the stage, most notably in a flare-up with backup singers Kathy Westmoreland and the Sweet Inspirations. According to Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love (Little, Brown and Company, 1999), the second volume of the author’s near-definitive Elvis biography, Elvis began picking on Westmoreland during shows, a provocation that culminated with Westmoreland and two of “the Sweets” walking off stage during a July 20 show in Norfolk.

The next night, in Greensboro, Westmoreland refused to go on for the show, despite an apology from Elvis. Later that night, he invited her to his hotel room, greeting her with a gift-wrapped package in one hand and a pistol in the other. “He leveled the gun at me,” Westmoreland recounted. “‘Which do you want,’” Elvis asked, “‘this or this?’” The backup singer chose the gift—a wristwatch—and was on-stage again the next night in Asheville.

But by the time Elvis got here, he had a new problem to contend with: a terrible toothache. His second day in town, the singer visited a Black Mountain dentist. Elvis’ personal doctor/prescription writer, George “Dr. Nick” Nichopoulos, went along, and would later give an account of what happened there to biographer Guralnick.

When the dentist left the room at one point, Guralnick writes, “Elvis started going through cabinet doors searching for pharmaceutical supplies. Nick remonstrated with him and was sure Elvis would get caught, but he couldn’t get him to stop until the dentist returned.” Elvis succeeded in making off with a stash of pills, and returned to the Rodeway Inn, a hotel on U.S. Highway 70 just east of Asheville, where he and his entourage occupied 86 rooms.

There, Dr. Nick claims, he demanded that Elvis forfeit the drugs. That apparently didn’t sit well with Elvis, according to Guralnick’s book. A short time later, the singer emerged from his bedroom with a pistol in his hand. He put his arm around his father, Vernon, who happened to be visiting, and then, “whether by accident or design, the gun went off.” Dr. Nick would later claim that the bullet ricocheted off of a chair and grazed his chest, doing no real harm.

A riveting account, to be sure, but it’s only one version of the story of how Elvis popped a cap inside the Asheville hotel room. Charlene Noblett, who was then the Rodeway’s general manager, recently revealed to Xpress that she heard several versions before she arrived at the one she believes is the truth.

“One of his bodyguards came down—he was wearing a neck brace—and told me he needed to see me in my office. We went inside, and he shut the door, and that’s when I thought, ‘Oh, no, we’ve done something wrong.’”

But instead, the bodyguard said, “I’m sorry, but we owe you a television.” He explained: “The only exercise Elvis can get when he’s on the road is wrestling, and we were wrestling with him when he bounced off the bed and accidentally put his foot into the TV.” Elvis would pay to replace the set, the bodyguard said, and he’d be taking it with him—“because he’d never seen one disintegrate like that.”

Fair enough, Noblett thought. Then, about an hour later, another member of Elvis’ inner circle showed up at the hotel office with a slightly different tale. “It wasn’t an accident,” the man said. “The Sweet Inspirations were bugging him, and he got so frustrated he just kicked right through the TV screen.”

At that point, “I didn’t know what to believe,” Noblett says. Two years would pass before she got to the bottom of it. In August 1977, shortly after Elvis’ death, J.D. Sumner returned to Asheville to take part in a memorial show. Once again, he stayed at the Rodeway, and Noblett couldn’t resist the chance to ask about that television.

“Do you want to know what really happened?” he said, according to Noblett. “Elvis shot the damn thing.” The image on the screen had started rolling up and down, Sumner explained—evidently there was a problem with the set’s vertical hold. “So he just shot it.” (Since Elvis’ death, it’s been widely reported that he had something of a penchant for shooting televisions in anger.)

Finally, Noblett had unraveled Elvis’ TV secret. “That was why he took it with him—so I wouldn’t know about it,” she muses. The former hotel manager is quick to add that Elvis paid for the television in full, and that, aside from the gunplay, the King and his cronies behaved like perfect gentlemen.

The royal treatment

The more troubled his personal life became, it seems, the more charitable Elvis was in public. Whatever the reason, the Asheville appearances found the superstar in a most generous mood. During the course of the three concerts, he gave away not only the usual fare—the guitar picks, scarves and cigars—but also a hoard of finer, more personal goods.

In the middle of the July 22 concert—right after his show-stopping trip to the throne—Elvis put his arm around J.D. Sumner and sang his praises, then pulled a massive ring off his finger. “Here, I want you to have this because I love you,” Elvis told his friend. “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a 10-carat diamond in that ring, and it cost $40,000. That’s how much I love this man.”

On the final night, July 24, Elvis bestowed more jewelry, this time on fans he seemingly chose at random. Donna Lewis, of Asheville, and Lloyd Perry, then of Bristol, Tenn. and now of Asheville, each left the concert with a hulking diamond ring. Perry, mystified by the gift, said the next day that “I ain’t felt this funny since I got married.”

But it was Mike Harris, then a 21-year-old student at Western Carolina University, who really got the kingly goods. When Harris and his date, Debbie (who’s now his wife), got to the arena that night, they found out that their seats were front-row, center, just a few yards away from the stage. It was a prime vantage point, and it proved to be far more than that once the concert got underway.

At first, Elvis’ band went through the usual motions: The theme from 2001 set the scene, then the lights came up and there was Elvis. “He just strode across the stage,” Harris remembered in a recent interview with Xpress. “Charlie Hodge, his back-man, put the guitar over him.”

The instrument was one of Elvis’ favorite six-strings, a personalized Gibson he’d commissioned back in 1968. His name was engraved in the guitar’s neck in a mother-of-pearl inlay. The body was as black as his hair—except for the Kenpo Karate sticker he’d pasted on beneath the lacquer. He’d played it in shows all over the country, and in several of his movies.

Elvis strummed and sang for a moment, then made a move that even his most ardent fans couldn’t have expected.

“He was in his opening number,” Harris remembers. “After he finished the first verse, they went into a break and he stopped, looked straight at me, walked over to the edge of the stage, and said, ‘Here, this is yours.’”

And with that, Elvis pulled the guitar over his head and placed it in Harris’ hands.

Stunned, Harris didn’t know what to say or do; in a flash, he’d gone from regular concert-goer to owner of a historic Elvis possession. And Elvis wasn’t done with the man he’d given his favorite guitar to. “Three or four songs later, he calls me back up to the stage, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to give it back,’” Harris recalls. Elvis leaned down, looked him straight in the eye and said, “I gave that to you for a reason.”

Even now, 30 years later, “I have no clue what the reason was,” Harris admits.

He may not know why Elvis gave it to him, but Harris has done his best to do the instrument—and its original owner—justice. Most days, the guitar resides in a local bank. “It sits in the back of a vault behind lock-boxes,” Harris says. “I go see it a lot, and change the strings so the neck won’t warp.” As for the original strings, he’s had them laminated and locked up too.

The guitar has seen plenty of post-Elvis use, though. Harris brings it out for friends, his kids and curious reporters, and he used to take it to class every year when he taught third-graders at Bell Elementary.

Meanwhile, Harris says, “I have become an Elvis nut,” though it might be more accurate to say that he has become Elvis. “I have the jumpsuits and the wigs and the sunglasses and all the mess that goes with it,” he says, ticking off an impressive roster of locales he’s played as an amateur but accomplished Elvis impersonator—from Asheville to Myrtle Beach, from Cancun to Hawaii. He even has his own groupies.

Sure, a man with Elvis’ guitar knows he’s sitting on a potential gold mine. “Oh, I’d love to have the money that it could be worth,” he says. Plenty of auction houses have come calling, and a few years ago, he met a vintage instrument dealer in Knoxville who offered him $125,000, cash money, on the spot. He turned the offer down.

“I’m in no hurry to sell it, let’s put it like that,” Harris says. “It would be nice to pay off a mortgage, or pay off colleges, to not have anything to worry about, but then,” he says, taking a long pause, “I don’t have the guitar.”

Pieces of his life

Elvis left Asheville on July 25, jetting home to Memphis for some much-needed R and R. After three days and nights in Asheville, he’d left behind great stories, grand gifts and high hopes that he’d one day return.

In fact, he’d planned to do just that, before he was detoured to that big concert arena in the sky. Elvis died Aug. 16, 1977, the day before he was to leave on another of his country-hopping tours; he’d booked a show in Asheville for Aug. 26.

The show, of course, had sold out well in advance. Instead of seeing the King that night, thousands of his fans gathered in the Civic Center for a memorial tribute.

Those who’d seen his last Asheville show carried with them more than just cherished memories, thanks to one last special gesture he made here. At the request of his father, Vernon, who was in attendance at the July 24 concert, he’d performed one of his few known live renditions of a song he’d recorded, Troy Seals’ “Pieces of My Life.”

In the last verse, Elvis sang words that rang true for both himself and the fans whose lives he’d touched: “I’m looking back on my life/ To see if I can find the pieces—Lord, the pieces of my life/ They’re everywhere, they’re everywhere.”

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